SIX – A global game of consequences

“Consequences” is a British parlour game. The game is very simple – everyone begins with a piece of paper and a pen. On the piece of paper is the following list: man’s name, woman’s name, place name, he said to her, she said to him, the consequence was (a description of what happened after), an outcome. Earlier this year Charlie Leadbeater asked us to play a game of social innovation themed Consequences during the inaugural pathfinder of the Young Foundation’s Global Innovation Academy. Each player had to supply the first item on the list, fold the top of the page over to hide their answer, then pass the paper on to the second player who supplies the second item, folds the page, and so on.

The resulting stories are often funny—Barack Obama met Marilyn Monroe at a conference in Bilbao…. —and always demonstrate that unexpected and delightful consequences arise when different people meet.

This is how the Social Innovation eXchange (SIX) works: unexpected people meet in interesting places, and delightful partnerships, programmes, and ideas arise as a consequence.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Porto where I learnt about just one series of SIX consequences. Porto, a few hours north of Lisbon, is a beautiful city, full of character and entrepreneurial spirit. The purpose of my visit was to lead a workshop on the Porto Social Foundation postgraduate course on social innovation, using a curriculum developed by the Young Foundation’s Global Innovation Academy.

Based in a splendid building on a farm named ‘Bonjoia’ in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city, the Porto Social Foundation is known as the ‘glue of Porto’. With a small team of just over 20 people, they are running more than 25 projects (as varied as the Aconchego programme which matches young students who need accommodation with seniors who have a home, but need company/support; and ‘Music for all’, which gives access to music lessons for young people from a deprived backgrounds – much like Gulbenkian’s Generation Orchestra).

Like many foundations all over the world, the Porto Social Foundation is increasingly interested in social innovation, and they now have five strands of work in this field, including a postgraduate course which I spoke at. They also have plans for a new Social Innovation Centre to generate and incubate new ideas and projects, which will open in the autumn of 2011. Their ‘Evenings at Bonjoia’ programme and annual country fair which they hold in the grounds of the farm each summer keep them deeply rooted in the community in which they are based. This year’s fair saw 20,000 people pass through.

The Porto Social Foundation is a relatively new member of SIX – we met when they entered their Aconchego programme in the European Commission’s ‘This is European Social Innovation’ – a call for inspiring stories which SIX ran with the Euclid Network. Their programme was chosen to be one of 10 highlighted in the Commission’s published communication.

During my visit, I also met Carlos Azevedo, who runs “União Distrital das Instituições Particulares de Solidaridade Social do Porto (UDIPSS-PORTO)”, an umbrella group of NGOs and social welfare organisations in Porto. Carlos attended the 2009 SIX Summer School in Lisbon, and one of SIX’s global TelePresence seminars on European Social Innovation policy. I had not met him in person, or had any contact, since 2009. Inspired by the design of the SIX event he attended 2 years ago, he wanted to meet and discuss a partnership with SIX for the event he is planning in Porto next year entitled ‘“Unpacking the Future: Pointing the North towards Social Innovation”.

I was surprised by how many of the others involved in this upcoming event in Porto were connected to SIX. When I asked him how he knew them, he told me he met them in Lisbon 2 years ago at our SIX event and has been working with them since. In response to my combination of surprise and pleasure at this, he went on to list a series of other fruitful global collaborations that were the result of his attendance at the 2009 SIX Summer School. I had no idea how beneficial the SIX gathering in Lisbon had been for him!

This type of conversation, though it always comes as a delightful surprise, is not unusual. It seems SIX does have consequences.

The meetings and consequences we like to laugh about in the British parlour game are almost always trivial and absurd, the meetings and consequences that result from SIX events are much more deliberate and… consequential! It’s not an accident that interesting people who have an interest in the same issue meet – SIX events are carefully designed to ensure that we get the right people in the room. And the series of unforeseen encounters and interactions can occur as a consequence of coming to SIX meetings—often in months and years after the initial meeting—can be very impactful. For example:

– Charlie Leadbeater, and Gorka Espiau and his colleagues from the Bilbao Social Innovation Park, met at the SIX Summer School in Singapore 2010. One year later, they are working together exploring initiatives in palliative care.
– Tarek Osman from Cairo and a number of other organisations across the Middle East and Africa met Dialogue Café at the 2011 SIX Spring School, and now they are collaborating on a six part co-creation dialogue series ‘The Cairo workshops’ using Dialogue Café technology
– Sarah and Chris from InWithFor and Brenton Caffin, CEO of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) met at the SIX TelePresence discussion on Design and Social innovation 2 years ago. InWithFor are now based in Adelaide, and are working withTACSI to design, prototype and develop the Family by Family project.
– Tim Draimin and his colleagues from Social Innovation Generation in Toronto met Christian Bason from Mindlab in Denmark, and Les Hems from the Centre for Social Impact in Australia—who are developing Australian Social Impact Bonds—during a series of SIX TelePresence discussions. Tim also brought along many senior players in Canada. This has helped accelerate the momentum of the innovation agenda in Canada and has encouraged serious discussion on the feasibility of a Canadian Social Impact Bond.

And these are just a few of the consequences that I know about…

Why is this dynamic so important? Had these meetings never happened the consequence would be simple and uninspiring: innovators would have less opportunity to share experiences, mistakes made in one country would have been made in others, solutions for problems such as obesity, homelessness, or care for the elderly, would not have been effectively explored.

The risk is that, if we don’t keep playing Consequences in the social innovation community, the imbalance between the world’s ability to devise new technological solutions and its ability to develop and implement better social solutions to social challenges, will only increase. At a time of fiscal squeeze all over the world and rising social problems, if someone in another country has a good idea that may help – I would like to know about it please!

At SIX, we must aim to be like a giant global game of Consequences – often results of our events are not immediately obvious, but after some time, and several connections and conversations, the results become apparent.

SIX has held several international events since the 2009 Lisbon Summer School where Carlos met Filippo and others, and I know there have been countless consequences/connections as a result. Insufficient investment in innovation, political barriers, a lack of skills and capacity must all be addressed if we want to solve the acute and complex problems that society presents us with today. But an investment in people is also critical.

The value of SIX is its people, and the ways in which we facilitate their connections. Social innovation takes place at the interface of sectors, fields, and disciplines and involves the transfer and cross-pollination of ideas. Convening people from across these groups (and hosting them out of their comfort zones in unfamiliar venues) is therefore likely to inspire social innovation. But it is often, not until after the event, much after the event, that the value of these connections is realised.

This, of course, makes it hard for us to measure the impact of SIX, and therefore more difficult for us to communicate its effectiveness. We are currently experimenting with measuring tools, and social network analysis methods, but the more I look into them, the more I see the value of people telling their stories. Over the coming months, SIX will work hard to communicate the stories of its members, the results of the connections and the resulting consequences.

If we put even a fraction of the resources into designing and hosting meetings where social innovators can share ideas for tackling social problems as we have into exploring distant planets, who knows what the consequences might be?